Money is an emotional issue. Ironically, we think of bankers and CPA’s as being controlled, staid personality types, as cool and unaffected by emotions as the facts and figures that comprise their areas of expertise. Just as we tend to think of scientists as people dealing only with objective facts and not vulnerable to subjective judgments, we think of financiers as “cool calculators”, credible and persuasive because they deal with the world of mathematics, which unlike most other areas of life has wrong or right answers which cannot be debated. “Just do the math,” we say, when we are trying to win an argument involving any need for capital or use of available funds.But in reality, life is not so compartmentalized. Business is an integral part of most human activities. Most of us are aware of that fact, because whether we are running a family, some not-for-profit organization, or an actual business that is defined purely as a business, we must deal with financial realities relative to our endeavors. We can’t spend more than we take in, or at least not for long. But even though we are on some level cognizant of that fact, we nevertheless operate as though our more altruistic institutions should be able to function on dreams and idealistic goals, with maybe a token of appreciation tossed at them here and there, a gesture of acknowledgement, or a “tip” if you will. We are unrealistic about what it takes to run churches, to run schools, to run charities, and to run the branches of local, state and federal government which benefit us all.
Conversely, we think that business is immune from any concern other than earning a profit. Just as in a court of law we have come to accept that winning the case takes priority over finding the truth, we only hold business accountable for its designated purpose, which is to make as much money as possible. Although consumer advocates and regulatory agencies put some checks on unbridled profit-seeking, in general we accept the philosophy that a successful business defines itself solely in terms of its profits and its competitive edge. But such a philosophy assumes that human beings are mere resources to be fit into a column marked “expenses” or “overhead”.
Certainly the most qualified people with the most responsibility deserve to be appropriately rewarded for their contributions to a company. But at what point is that disproportional?
Thankfully, many businesses are recognizing that if employees are an indispensable part of their establishment’s success, investing in the well-being of those employees is good business. Who contributes more to a corporation’s success? One CEO or several hundred employees? (I am aware here that my own math may be faulty. I haven’t researched how a raise in minimum wage and benefits would compare with the salaries, retirement packages and severance pays of a given number of top management positions.) I am sure that varies from business to business anyway. Certainly the most qualified people with the most responsibility deserve to be appropriately rewarded for their contributions to a company. But at what point is that disproportional? What I would really hope for is a business culture in which compassion and caring for employees is voluntary.
One of the reasons for our present political polarization is that we want to impose our business philosophies onto government. We want government to operate the way that the most successful businessmen and women operate their corporations. Some validity exists in that expectation. Certainly, there is much inefficiency, apathy and waste in government bureaucracy. But that also exists in huge corporations. Lack of communication, or the inability to communicate with a living human being rather than a voice mail recording is a modern problem that businesses and government have in common. But our government also does a lot right. Grants for medical research and scientific research in particular have resulted in amazing progress from which we have all benefited. Educational and economic opportunities for Americans from all walks of life are more equitable than they have ever been. We still have a lot of work to do, and granted, throwing money at a problem doesn’t necessarily solve it.
Government has the responsibility for serving all the people. For keeping us safe. For protecting and empowering children and families.
Government can learn a lot from good business practices. But while government is big business, government differs from corporate America, because it isn’t only a business. Government has the responsibility for serving all the people. For keeping us safe. For protecting and empowering children and families. For ensuring that equal economic opportunity is a reality rather than just an idea bandied about by people who give it lip-service but make it more difficult for people to achieve. Government needs to reward the work ethic, but that is done partly by making sure that hard work actually does pay off. Our country has functioned best when private enterprise, government, schools and altruistic organizations have cooperated with each other to insure that everyone’s boundaries are respected but that everyone operates with a sense of fair-play, compromise, and the common good.